LONDON — All being well, there will be a general election in Britain on June 7. It is not yet official but it seems almost certain.
From the government’s point of view, “all being well” means that the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which is leading to the mass slaughter of farm animals, will by then have subsided somewhat. The widespread feeling that Prime Minister Tony Blair should put the defeat of the epidemic first and electioneering second will by then have been assuaged, goes that argument, and the campaign can go forward as normal.
This judgment is probably correct. The originally intended date of May 3 would undoubtedly have looked wrong and Blair’s decision to postpone both local and national elections for a month was the right one.
The other concern that prime ministers and governing parties usually have is, of course, whether they have chosen the right date to win. There being no fixed term for government in Britain, except that there has to be a general election sometime within five years of the last one, the incumbents always have this fine judgment to make. Too soon and the general public wonder why they are being bothered; too near the final five-year deadline, and there can be a dangerous narrowing of options for those in power.
But in Blair’s case this is probably a lesser worry. The opinion polls put him miles ahead, (the latest Gallup Poll gives him a 25 percent lead) with the main opposition party, the Conservatives (or Tories), lagging badly. The farm crisis has actually improved his standing, despite some major government errors in handling it.
So, it is probable that Blair is losing very little sleep over the issue and is completely confident of being returned for a second term.
In a way, this message from the opinion pollsters is puzzling since even Blair would not claim that his first term has been an unalloyed success. Taxes are higher, public services hardly improved and Britain’s international reputation much less good than it was at the end of the Conservative era four years ago.
Moreover, most unbiased observers concede that Conservative leader William Hague has put up a very good fight and proved a doughty campaigner and opposition leader. Amazingly quick on his feet, he is probably one of the finest debaters and parliamentary performers in a generation.
What has gone right for Blair and what has gone wrong for Hague?
The answer to the first part of the question is quite simply — the economy. In total contrast to stagnating Japan, Britain has enjoyed four years of falling unemployment, very low inflation, quite strong growth and a general feeling of prosperity. Wallets have been full and, until recently, optimism high about the British performance. This has been in stark contrast with the much higher unemployment levels in neighboring continental Europe.
Whether this is all to do with the long-term benefits coming through from the tough and radical Thatcher reforms back in the 1980s, or whether it can be attributed to the management of the economy over the last four years, may not bear too close an examination.
But the fact remains that until recently most people in Britain have felt comfortable and are prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. They may not be as enthusiastic about Blair as they once were, but they seem to see no particular reason for turfing him out or denying him another few years.
So the general “feel good” factor continues to work in the government’s favor. Whether it will now begin to evaporate, with the sharp U.S. slowdown and the first signs that this is hitting Europe as well, remains to be seen. This is doubtless one reason why Blair will not want to postpone the election any later than the June date.
All this presents the Tories with a formidable cliff to climb. The center ground of politics, as redefined by Thatcherism, now seems to be firmly occupied by “New Labor” and the Conservatives have found difficulty in establishing a distinctive and different appeal, and in avoiding a fuzzy “me too” label.
To political insiders it no doubt looks as though there are all sorts of key differences, not least on Europe and the euro (“save the pound” say the Conservatives), on levels of taxation and on constitutional reform.
But to the general public it sounds as though the Tories are just planning to carry on with the same social programs as Labor, the same crumbling and endlessly expensive National Health Service, the same taxpayer-funded pensions and welfare provision and the same spending patterns, although trimmed here and there. No big, new radical idea or analysis to challenge the cliches of current politics has been forthcoming; there is nothing comparable to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s message when she came to power to reverse a century of state domination, remove the disastrous grip of the public-sector unions and begin privatizing.
This decision to “play safe” may well be in line with what the party strategists, with their so-called focus groups, are telling Hague. But the price for such caution is that the case for chucking out the Blair team after one term goes unmade.
So to mount an effective challenge, the Tories will need more boldness and insight, a rapid change of public outlook on the economic front (i.e., bad times round the corner rather than good ones) and a lot of luck.
It could happen, of course. Politics is full of surprises. The British are now in a downbeat mood, with flooded homes, burning cattle and filthy spring weather. It is always possible that millions of former Labor supporters could stay at home on election day.
But if the polls are at all accurate, it seems unlikely that this will change significantly the overall voting outcome .
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